Veronica Mars: Season 1 [retro article]

It’s a Raymond Chandler evening
At the end of someone’s day
And I’m standing in my pocket
And I’m slowly turning grey

It’s rare I’ll let a DVD box do my job for me, but this once I’m going to make an exception, because it tells you exactly what you need to know about Veronica Mars: “A little bit Buffy. A little bit Bogart. A dash of Nancy Drew.” Yet it doesn’t fully do the character justice because Veronica Mars is far more than the sum of her forebears- smarter than the Hardy Boys, sassier than Nancy Drew, looks way better in a miniskirt than Encyclopedia Brown. But a person could be forgiven their skepticism because let’s face it: when boiled down to a one-sentence description, the notion of a high school girl solving mysteries sounds nearly as inane as… well, that of a high school girl fighting demons. So let’s take a closer look at exactly who this girl is, shall we?

Veronica Mars used to have everything: a place in the in-crowd, the richest boyfriend in school, his sister Lilly as a best friend, and a happy home life with her father as sheriff. That all came crashing down the day Lilly was murdered, setting off a chain of events that culminated in Keith Mars being drummed out of office, Veronica’s mother skipping town, and Veronica herself becoming the school pariah. Less than a year later we meet a wiser, tougher Veronica helping her father with his fledgling detective agency and solving a few cases of her own, all while enduring abuse from her former friends and returning it in spades. Looming behind it all is the specter of Lilly Kane’s murder, the solution to which has the power to either vindicate or damn Keith’s suspicions and allow Veronica to finally lay her friend to rest. Aided by her only friend Wallace, ignored by former boyfriend Duncan, and tormented by Lilly’s ex and psychotic jackass Logan, it’s going to be a busy year for Veronica Mars. And if you’re a fan of intelligent TV, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

I remember what I told you
But I can’t remember why
And the yellow leaves are falling
In a spiral from the sky

I referenced Buffy earlier, and the shows do have a lot in common, starting with where they begin: a formerly popular teenage girl suddenly finds herself ostracized and forced to rebuild her life from scratch. On the other hand, a wittier writer than I observed the irony that VM’s theme song says, “A long time ago, we used to be friends, but I haven’t thought of you lately at all”… because after suffering through the last two seasons of Buffy, a blonde spitfire who kicked evil’s ass without benefit of superpowers stole my heart, and I’ve barely thought of the Slayer since. While I love the first few seasons of BtVS, Veronica grafts Buffy’s attitude onto Willow’s character and loses the self-pity, with a definite emphasis on brains over brawn. Still, fans of one show will almost certainly appreciate the other, as they address many of the same themes against a high school backdrop. (One last comparison: channeling Spike, the character of Logan was originally intended as a recurring antagonist and pain in Veronica’s ass, but he interacted so well with the rest of the cast that his role was expanded, creating a much more rounded character.)

One of the key areas in which Veronica Mars sets itself apart is its willingness to tackle darker themes. Make no mistake- VM may take place in high school, but it’s far more The Shield than Dawson’s Creek. That’s apparent from the first episode, where we learn that Veronica’s sole attempt to rejoin the in-crowd following Lilly’s death ended with her being drugged and raped at a party. I’m sometimes leery of inserting tragedies like this into characters’ backstories because too often they’re used as a substitute for actual character development. But on this show, terrible occurrences aren’t glossed over or trivialized in a melodramatic “tonight, on a very special Veronica Mars” way. Rather, they’re presented as an unfortunate consequence of the world the characters inhabit, one that is often enjoyable but sometimes horribly unfair. There’s plenty of humor to go around and more than a few happy endings, but you can never take it for granted from one episode to the next. Which is precisely how things should be in noir.

There’s a body on the railings
That I can’t identify
And I’d like to reassure you but
I’m not that kind of guy

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes VM work because every element works in tandem to create a greater whole. Certainly the writing is sharp, full of strong character arcs and a satisfying conclusion. Creator Rob Thomas cites Twin Peaks as a huge influence but claims Laura Palmer taught him an important lesson: if you’re going to introduce a huge mystery to the audience, you have to eventually solve it. I forget whether before this show I thought Kristen Bell was great or just great looking, but either way, she does an excellent job of spearheading the cast. It’d be easy for the character to become a stereotypical “sassy girl hurting on the inside,” but Bell never lets Veronica become a cliché and shows acting range far beyond her years. Likewise, Enrico “Galaxy Quest” Colatoni is outstanding, and his and Veronica’s interactions just might go down as the best parent-child relationship in television history. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) By turns supportive, suspicious, joking, protective, competent, and always loving, Keith is the kind of TV dad we need to see more of. In episodes with particularly heavy Keith/Veronica interaction, the rest of the cast might as well not exist.

I can’t fail to single out the stellar guest stars (mostly, Paris Hilton) who manage to support the main cast without overshadowing them. Prominent names over all 3 seasons include Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, Paul Rudd, Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat, Ralph “The Todd” Maschio, Alyson Hannigan, and Charisma Carpenter, the latter two even getting to share a scene together. (Good news for Buffy fans who always wanted to see Willow out-bitch Cordelia.) In a similar vein, what helps keep the “mystery of the week” format from getting stale is that minor characters often return in later episodes; some, like Tina Majorino’s Mac, even join the main cast in later seasons. Like any show, it has a few flaws — for instance, Veronica’s voiceovers are often clever but sometimes feel redundant — but in the first season at least, they tend to be pretty minor.

I could go on, but it boils down to one thing, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of detective fiction or not: Veronica Mars is television for smart people. It doesn’t spoonfeed you answers, it doesn’t make you wonder if the writers think you’re an idiot — it trusts you to make intuitive leaps and see how things connect yourself. If that sounds like your kind of show, then there’s no mystery: you owe it to yourself to give Veronica Mars a try.

It’s a Raymond Chandler evening
And the pavements are all wet
And I’m lurking in the shadows
‘Cause it hasn’t happened…

…yet.

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2 Comments

  1. Of course, everyone looks like a fashion model too. I think that’s one of the reasons why I just can’t seem to connect with modern TV. I thought of Murder She Wrote while reading this, and how they lasted so many seasons without appealing to the teen audience or using lynch-esque filming just by knowing the subject matter well.

  2. Pingback: Mamma Mia! | Mutant Reviewers

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